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UT English major and businessman Keith Taylor picture

With a Little Help from My Friends

Nowadays, $5 won’t get you much—let alone change someone’s life. But Keith Taylor (’98) and his Modest Needs Foundation beg to differ.

Keith Taylor

You wouldn’t be reading this if Keith Taylor (’98) hadn’t received a helping hand when he was in college.

In fact, Taylor came very close at one point to being homeless while in school, due to an unforeseen financial emergency. His car had broken down. He couldn’t pay his rent for the month. The day before he likely would have been evicted, his boss (for his part-time job as a projectionist at a movie theater) gave Taylor some money to make the rent. That selfless gesture kept Taylor in his home—and in school.

Years later, the memory of that gesture changed Taylor’s life forever.

After graduating from UT with his PhD in English, Taylor immediately nabbed a tenure-track faculty position at Middle Tennessee State University. Like most new professors, he had inherited the classes that his seniors didn’t want, including a research and bibliography course.

“That was a universally despised class,” Taylor says. “I swear it was numbered English 666. Whoever numbered that class had a wry sense of humor.”

Despite the apocalyptic course number, life was good.

“One day, in the spring of 2002, I came out of class energized, and I felt fantastic,” Taylor says. “I was driving home and feeling lucky to have the job I have. It was a real moment of gratitude. I started thinking of the number of times in my life that I had come close to not finishing school due to short-term financial emergencies.”

The memory of his boss’s much-needed gift popped into Taylor’s head.

“I thought about him and about people like him,” he says. “And I said to myself, ‘You know, when I’m really wealthy, what I’ll do is start a foundation that will help people with the exact type of emergencies people have helped me with.”

His next thought was simple yet profound.

“It occurred to me that the people who had helped me actually weren’t wealthy—they were just compassionate,” Taylor says. “That’s what I was missing about giving. It’s not about the money. It’s about doing what I can with what I have.”

He decided to set aside 10 percent of his salary—about $350 each month—and found a few people who were in short-term financial emergencies. To find people, he built a very simple website that explained his intentions, included his contact information, and waited for requests.

He called his experiment Modest Needs.

“At the time, it was a part-time hobby that gave me personal pleasure,” Taylor says. “It was something to do while continuing on my career path.”

The site launched March 31, 2002. Within ten days, a site called Metafilter discovered Modest Needs.

Within weeks, Taylor was on the Today show and CNN.

“No one else was doing this,” Taylor says.

The Modest Needs Foundation took off from there, offering grants to what the foundation’s website calls the “working poor—the hard-working but low-income individuals and families that conventional philanthropy has otherwise forgotten.” Those who benefit from Modest Needs grants include low-income but generally self-sufficient households, displaced workers struggling to return to the workforce, permanently disadvantaged persons struggling to afford medical care, and small non-profit organizations.

To date, Taylor says Modest Needs has made more than $10 million in small grants to individuals and families.

The quick success of Modest Needs left Taylor in a bit of a quandary.

“I was coming up for tenure and had to decide where I could make the most impact,” Taylor says. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I resigned from my position [at MTSU] and moved to New York City to work for Modest Needs.”

Vision Fulfilled

Taylor’s decision should come as no surprise, though. From childhood, he wanted to help others however he could.

“I remember seeing a Publishers Clearing House envelope when I was 8 and telling my parents that if I won, I would give it all away,” he says, adding with a laugh, “And they said, ‘No, you’re not!’”

But through Modest Needs, Taylor knows that winning the lottery or a huge sweepstakes isn’t necessary to truly change someone’s life. His favorite story to illustrate the full impact of Modest Needs focuses on a family in Kentucky who applied for help shortly after Modest Needs’ launch.

“Both parents were employed,” he says. “They had several children, and the oldest was about to start kindergarten, but he was autistic and had an eye disorder where he couldn’t see shapes correctly. The lenses to correct it were very expensive—$5,000. They didn’t have the money to buy those lenses.

“The mom applied for help, but for only $50. They had found an optometrist who was willing to take that as a down payment for the glasses. That’s all they asked for, and she promised to get a part-time job to pay for the glasses.

“I was moved by her humility to ask for so little for something so important,” Taylor says. He suggested that the family pay for the inexpensive frames, and Modest Needs would pay for the corrective lenses.

“So we bought this child some glasses,” he says. “You’d think that’s the end. Later, I found out that the child went to the doctor, was fitted with the glasses, and then he looks at his mom and asks, “Mom, is that you?’ That was the first time he’d seen his mother. And before that day, he could only draw black lines on a piece of paper. That day, he drew a picture of a family and a house. From that day, he made leaps and bounds in his learning.”

Through the years, Taylor stayed in touch with the family. The boy’s vision corrected itself over time, and the family became donors to Modest Needs.

“They have probably given six times as much as what they got for those lenses,” Taylor says. “A lot of the people we help become donors. It’s about teaching people that it doesn’t take a large amount of money to make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

True Volunteer Spirit

Taylor, a 2011 UT Accomplished Alumnus, never forgot his alma mater and how some students often need a helping hand to go to college and experience the world. Taylor led Modest Needs to establish the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Graduate Student Promise Award Fund to recruit outstanding doctoral students in the humanities, the Dr. Keith P. Taylor Undergraduate Student Essay Award in Marco Fund, and the Dr. Keith P. Taylor Student Drama Enrichment Fund, which awards travel grants to students to participate in the English department’s off-campus drama courses in New York and England.

The gifts hit home for Taylor, who derives much of his success from his time at the UT College of Arts and Sciences.

“You learn the specifics of your degree, but you really learn how to be a critical thinker,” he says. “Things like translating Middle English have helped me as a CEO to think outside the box and ignore the naysayers. A lot of people didn’t think Modest Needs would work, but every possibility is open. That’s academic inquiry.”

Taylor himself participated in the study abroad drama courses with the English department.

“Those travel experiences changed my life and exposed me to new worlds I didn’t know existed,” he says. “With my gifts, I wanted to honor UT and honor my own commitment to Modest Needs. I want to support students who otherwise might not have the travel experiences I had at UT.

“It’s still not huge giving,” Taylor says. “But it’s impacting students’ lives. Helping people in small ways makes a big impact.”

—Roger Hagy, Jr., article originally published in COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES